Authors: Maxim Chattam
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Reading is an entirely personal experience: a crazy feeling of exaltation, resulting from a meeting between black marks on fragments of wood treated with spirit and a brain that captures the words and interprets them, according to its particular sensibilities. The engine that drives every story is the reader's mind; his or her imagination is its fuel. All the author does is describe a more or less malleable landscape, and then works hard to ensure that the reader follows the guardrail.
But it's all about the senses.
And I would like to share with you my experience as a reader, before I leave you alone with these pages.
For a long time I liked silence when I was reading.
The peace and quiet of a kind of impersonal nothingness, which enabled me to savor fully the sonorous cataclysm of the words.
Then I made an effort: I began using music for reading. Symphonic music.
At the start, the idea didn't really tempt me. Then it won me over. The perceptive process of reading involves the senses. And music adds enormously to their power.
Read a novel at home with music floating all around, or in a train car, with a personal stereo glued to your ears, or even slip a CD into the computer during your lunch break at work and plug the headphones into the CPU, and the magic of the imagination is set in motion.
Believe me, if you're not already an enthusiast, it's an experiment well worth trying. The use of intoxicating music increases the already incredible power of reading tenfold.
But not just any music.
Making the right choice of background music is as difficult as choosing which book to open next.
Usually, when I write, I deny myself any kind of distraction, anything that might make me lose my concentration (however tenuous it may be). For this novel, I tried a different approachÂ â¦ out of curiosity, to find out what kind of effect it might have on me.
I was lucky. At my very first attempt, I discovered
music for the novel.
Or perhaps it was the book that was inspired by the soundscapes.
I work with music from films. It's perfect, created to add sound to an image without supplanting it. Original film soundtracks are composed with the aim of being shared; they never make a name for themselves all on their own, so they are the ideal reading companions.
Here are my recommendations, in the form of a few recordings, should you decide to follow my advice for the book you are about to read. True, it does demand a small amount of preparation, but I am sure that you will be rewarded emotionally.
If you are tempted before even reading the first chapter, try to obtain the music from the film
by James Newton Howard. Careful now, don't confuse the issues. We're not talking about the film here, so it doesn't matter whether you liked it or loathed it. The music itself is intoxicating.
This recording should serve as your ideal companion for this novel. I listened to it on a continuous loop, day after day, throughout the time I was writing the part about Mont-Saint-Michel. And I never tired of it.
If you wish to take curiosity and enjoyment still further, then you will have to find a second recording for the whole of the part about Egypt. For this, there are two possibilities, as far as I am concerned: either Peter Gabriel's
The Passion of the Christ,
composed by John Debney, whose mysterious, Middle Easternâ influenced soundscapes should carry you far, far away into that strange land we call the imagination.
I have told you everything. My reading secrets are now yours.
In regards to myself, music changed the way I perceived things as a reader. The stories acquired more emotional densityâwhich I would have considered unthinkable before. I felt like an amateur baker who discovers the existence of yeast.
Of course, this is only a piece of advice, but it is like those good, small restaurants whose details friends like to pass quietly to one another, like an affectionate secret, and then hope to be there when the other finally arrives, to witness the smile on his face. In any case, I shall be around while you are reading; I simply hope to see those smiles appear on your faces.
Finally, in this time of doubt, I shall allow myself to remind you that the time machine does exist. It is magic.
And magic really exists. In words.
That is the key to this story.
Happy readingÂ â¦
Edgecombe, October 12, 2004
Only he who carries the load knows how much it weighs.
Man will occasionally stumble over the truth,
but most of the time he will pick himself up
and continue on.
SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL
Tombs of the Caliphs, East of Cairo, March 1928
The setting sun filtered through an ancient tomb, shining right across its immense structure from one window to the other like a red eye, tingeing the stone with a fleeting touch of blood. The necropolis had all the elements of a ghost town: its deserted streets, its structures inhabited only by sand and wind, and its increasingly dark shadows.
The damaged monuments were dotted among more modest tombs. They were disproportionate in size, buildings of several stories surmounted by dizzy cupolas and flanked by silent minarets; they had courtyards, fountains that had forever run dry, spacious loggias, and everywhere those darkened openings, accoladed windows or holes designed to play with the light.
All at once the sand in the streets whirled up and was borne away by the dusk wind.
Stone remains emerged from the ground, rough stelae toppled by the centuries.
Several acres of large, majestic tombs, as fine as palaces, waited at the gates of Cairo, like the last hope before the desert. A tardy, forgotten hope.
Not far to the east, hills danced under the city's ramparts, like a strangely fossilized sea-swell. Hills not of earth or sand, but of detritus: eight centuries' worth of debris, abandoned here by organized city-dwellers. Heaps of rubble, shards of pottery, fragments of carved stone in a sea of picturesque remains.
The silhouettes of the last people who had been crouching there, working, moved off in the direction of Bab Darb el-Mahrug, a gate leading into el-Azhar district. A group of three kids were squabbling, as was so often the case here, over a piece of enamel that could easily be sold. The question was which of the three had seen it first, lying among the rubble. The eldest was twelve years old.
The children came here every day to dig through the debris, in search of the most insignificant, vaguely historic crumb that might bring a little money if offered to the wealthy tourists who swarmed all over Cairo.
For once the dispute did not result in blows and the eldest child let the other two leave with their trophy, in exchange for a few threats about their future fate if he saw them hunting around there again.
Seleem, who had been watching the scene from the steps of a tomb, finally stood up. He had been there for more than an hour, waiting for them all to leave. He did not want to take the risk of being seen.
His presence in the necropolis was too important for that.
Now that the sun was setting, Cairo was gradually lighting up, the ocher city progressively gaining color from the modern brilliance of the European-style buildings. A forest of minarets rose up above the old city wall.
Seleem saw his city through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy who had never even crossed the Nile: with the feeling that the center of the world lay at the heart of those narrow alleyways.
Nothing was more beautiful or more important than Cairo.
Except perhaps this evening, this meeting.
He adored legends. And he was on the point of experiencing one. He had been promised.
It must be time.
Seleem walked down the steps and along an interminable wall. He walked past the funerary mosque of Bars Bey until he found the place he had been told about.
A cramped passageway disappeared between two tall mausoleums.
Splintered wood was strewn across the sand.
Seleem watched where he was stepping and entered.
It was dark; the first stars were not enough to light up the narrow passage.
Seleem walked to the end of what turned out to be a blind alley, and he waited.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Night had fallen, and now the stars were glittering powerfully above the tombs of the caliphs.
Seleem let out his first scream.
The echo of his cry rose up into the empty structures that surrounded him. Instinctively, without rational thought, he had just invented a language, and this cry was the most original definition of it.
It had just given substance to terror.
Before the ends of his hair had finished turning white, he was able to let out a second scream.
This time, he spoke the language of pain.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
A stray dog abandoned the old rag it had found and turned its head toward the blind alley. The screams had just stopped.
The dog opened its mouth and the tip of its moist tongue lolled out. It headed toward the passageway.
It stopped at the entrance, where the thick shadows began.
Then it moved toward the source of those screams.
Its canine curiosity vanished after a few feet, when it scented what haunted the air at the end of this blind alley.
Its eyes saw through the darkness, making out the stocky figure that was moving above the body of a child.
The shape unfolded, became tall.
The smell spread out until it reached the dog's maw.
And the animal began to back away.
When the shape advanced toward it, the dog urinated.
It urinated on itself.
The wind raised up its offering of sand and bore it away, far away, into the mysteries of the desert.